by Cecil Hook
WHAT IS THE LAW OF CHRIST?
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). What is the law of Christ?
Jesus has assured us, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Paul told disciples, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8f). The grace of God appeared, teaching us (Titus 2:11f). The gospel is the message of grace to be believed for salvation (Mark 16:15f). We are saved by grace; however, under Moses’ law men had sought justification by law, and there is great tendency for disciples to seek righteousness through keeping of a supposed system of law also.
1. COULD ONE BE SAVED BY WORKS OF THE LAW? Paul gave a definite negative answer to this question. “For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 2:20). “By works of the law shall no one be justified” (Gal. 2:16). “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21). “Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law” (Gal. 3:11).
The law had a weakness: it could bring death, but not life. It made nothing perfect (Heb 7:18f). It promised life but proved to be death (Rom 7:10) because a person was required to keep all the law or be cursed (Gal. 3:10f), and none could keep it all. So all had the sentence of death.
That same weakness prevents any law from saving. Law has no power to save. John assures us that all of us sin (1 John 1:8f). James adds, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). If we keep 99% of the law but fail in the remaining one percent, what happens? We are back to zero! So it is all by grace! If one is to be saved, it must be totally by grace. One cannot be saved partly by law keeping and partly by grace. If grace saves only to the extent that one is able to keep law, then none can be saved. If one could keep all the law, he would need no grace. Our traditional exhortation to the one who fails to keep all the law is “Try harder!” While giving lip-service to grace, we frustrate disciples by urging that they must attain it by keeping all the law — or making a passing score, whatever that may be. The claim of justification by law keeping was “another gospel” of Galatians 1:6-9. Any effort to be justified by legal means is a falling away from grace (Gal 5:4). Grace is not a quality of law.
One legal system did not replace another. The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus. Grace and truth were not a system of law to replace the old one. God did not send another law, but He sent His Son in whom we may be justified. To saved persons, Paul explained, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Please read Romans 3:20-28 and observe that justification apart from law is by grace as a free gift to those who believe. Righteousness is not attained by rule keeping, but it is a free gift (Rom. 5:17). Also please read another passage of length, Galatians 3:23 through 4:7, to learn that, now that faith has come, the custodian is no longer in charge and that God sent His Son instead of another legal custodian. Ours is a personal relationship in Him instead of a legal relationship.
2. WHAT IS THE NATURE OF OUR RELATIONSHIP TO GOD? The Spirit makes us new creatures in Christ. “But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). This new relationship is accomplished through the new birth (John 3:3f), by which we are all sons of God through faith (Gal 3:26f), and in which our life becomes hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). It is not a legal relationship, but a spiritual one.
We enter into a covenant relationship. God made a covenant with Abraham and sealed it by circumcision (Gen. 17:9f). Later the law was given to guide the covenant people (Deut. 4:4f). The law was not the covenant of promise, nor did it make them covenant people.
The new covenant is sealed in us by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13f). This is done when we receive the Spirit at the time of our obedience to the gospel; the other teachings are given to guide those in covenant relationship.
The new covenant is not a written code. Paul wrote that God “has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). Hebrews 8:7-8 further emphasizes that the new covenant would not be like the old one. His law is to be written on our hearts instead of stone or paper.
How can law be written on our hearts if we are not under law? To say that we are not under law is not to say that we are not under the lordship of Christ and the sovereignty of God. Law has a range of meanings. Law may be a legal system which demands perfect obedience. Law also can be a principle of action. We are justified through the principle of grace through faith (Eph. 2:8f; Rom. 3:27f; 8:1f). That grace activates our love.
3. WHAT IS THE NEW COVENANT RULE OF ACTION? It is love which God in His grace infuses into our hearts. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God initiates the principle of loving action, writing His law upon our hearts.
The love which He has created in us is the master key to unlock the servile chain of any other law. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:8f). Love fulfills God’s requirements. It frees us. A legal code enslaves. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Paul emphasizes these points again in Galatians 5:13f: “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” What greater and more comprehensive law — principle of action — could we want? How would a listing of authoritative demands help a person show love?
God directs us into right relationship with Him and man. “And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets’” (Matt. 22:37f). All through the ages, God was trying to help us simply to love Him and one another. That was the purpose of the law and the message of the prophets. God has shown us how to express that love through commands, exhortations, teachings, principles, and examples. Man has tried consistently to interpret these as lawful requirements, but God gave them as directives to love. Men argue, fight, and divide over lawful interpretations and thereby defeat the love into which God was directing. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (legal hair-splitting: CH) is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). As covenant people, we are guided by these but not justified by them. When we sin as disciples, we depend upon grace for our forgiveness rather than obeying more laws (1 John 1:5-10; 2:1-6).
Does this encourage sin, disobedience, and indifference? Anticipating such a question, Paul answers, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1f). He warns against abuse of our freedom, then cautions, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:13-16). Freedom is not for unrestrained indulgence.
4. WHAT IS THE LAW OF CHRIST? Some would contend that the entirety of the New Testament writing is the law of Christ. Then, is the account of the birth and temptation of Jesus the law of Christ? What of the love chapter, the resurrection chapter, and Revelation? Are these all parts of the law of Christ? The law of Christ is not a book, a listing, or a code of laws. Where is such a catalog of laws? The Jews enumerated 613 laws in their legal code. How many laws has Christ given us? Since we are to keep the law of Christ, surely someone has counted and listed those laws so we will have a check-list! Where is such a list?
Christ’s law is love; yet He gives us commands, examples, exhortations, warnings, and principles as guidelines for the expression of love — our response to grace.
Christ’s law is love. His laws (plural) are (1) love God and (2) love man. Love is the new commandment (John 13:34f) which John’s readers had heard from the beginning of their discipleship (1 John 2:7f). “And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have heard from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love” (2 John 5f).
“And this commandment we have heard from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4:21) is a re-emphasis of the first and second commandments. Love is the royal, kingly law (James 2:8).
Expressed love fulfills the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). Love is the perfect law, the law of liberty (James 1:25, 2:12) — liberty from a lifeless legal code and efforts for legal justification. It is the Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12), that ageless law which conveys the intent and message of the law and the prophets.
How beautiful this is! God initiates the response of love: “We love, because he first loved us.” He begins the working of His law in our hearts. He wants us to express it. His directives guide us in expressing it: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). So, our expressions of love become God’s expressions of love through us, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). No burden! “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). No fear! Keeping His law of love is neither fearful nor burdensome!
We are justified by grace through faith in obeying the gospel. Efforts to be justified by law would nullify the grace of Christ. Our response to God’s grace is the love which God initiates in us. The New Testament writings guide our love into proper expression.
“Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10).